When the 2012 baseball season started, those Toronto Blue Jays had a lower payroll than the Colorado Rockies. And the Cincinnati Reds. And the Seattle Mariners. And 18 other teams. Feel free to look that up.
But when the 2013 baseball season begins, that's a neighborhood you definitely won't find the Blue Jays hanging out in. Not anymore.
Thanks to the Miami Marlins' fabulous Talent Exportation Department, there are now only four teams in the entire sport with more money already committed to their payrolls for next season than the Blue Jays. And here they are:
1. Dodgers: $185.8 million
2. Yankees: $146 million
3. Phillies: $136.3 million
4. Tigers: $112.8 million
5. Blue Jays: $109.7 million
(* Source: baseball-reference.com)
And the Blue Jays aren't done. They aren't done spending (not with more than $90 million already committed to 10 players in 2014). And they aren't done shopping. They're out hunting for more top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers as we speak. And even after sending seven players to what's left of the Marlins, this is a team with the system depth to make another major trade.
But let's worry about the Blue Jays' next major trade some other time, OK? For the moment, let's just ask: How good are they right now? I tossed that question at one NL executive this week. And here's how he answered it, with no hesitation:
"I would have to pick them to win that division. The Yankees are getting older. Boston is done -- for next year. Tampa Bay is going to lose players. And what was Baltimore's record in close games -- like 28-1? Tell me that's going to happen again. So right now, for me, the Blue Jays are the best team in that division."
All right, so they don't have a true No. 1 starter to match up with a CC Sabathia or a David Price -- "but what they do have is a lot of No. 2s and 3s," the same NL exec said. And some of those No. 2s and 3s have a chance to be more than that. Brandon Morrow comes to mind. Ricky Romero comes to mind. And then there's Josh Johnson.
"To me, he's a No. 2 or 3 now, not a No. 1," the exec said. "His fastball isn't the same. The number [on the radar gun] is the same [as it was in his prime]. The life and the finish aren't. … But I think he'll be better next year. He's still got a chance to come back [from his shoulder issues]. And this is a big year for him [with free agency a year away]."
Now add in the ever-reliable Mark Buehrle. Add in a bullpen full of live arms and, theoretically, a healthy Sergio Santos. Add in an offense that was three runs shy of leading the major leagues in runs scored the day Jose Bautista got hurt last July -- and now has imported the top-of-the-lineup energy of Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio. And what do you have?
You have the best team in the AL East. On paper. On Nov. 21. That's what.
And even though it's only Thanksgiving weekend, it's been a long time since we've been able to say that about the Toronto Blue Jays. Wouldn't you say?
• It isn't every November that you see 12 players and $146 million changing hands in one megadeal. But guess what? It was a bigger stunner to people outside baseball than inside baseball that ultra-aggressive Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled off a trade of that magnitude. This, say his peers, is a man capable of making a 30-team deal someday.
"To be honest," laughed an exec of one club, "I'm surprised he didn't have four or five other teams involved in this one."
• Speaking of the Blue Jays, the Phillies have batted around the idea of an extension for baseball's most prominent former Blue Jay, Roy Halladay, but are proceeding slowly -- for now.
"I guess it's still possible," said Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "But a lot has to do with how he feels and how he performs. So that's a decision and a conversation that would probably have to go into the spring, and maybe into the season."
Before Halladay's shoulder started acting up in midseason, the Phillies had actually had some preliminary talks with his agent, Greg Landry, about an extension that would keep Halladay in Philadelphia beyond next year -- and bring his salary more in line with the $24 million average annual value of Cliff Lee's deal. But Halladay's shoulder -- and the Phillies -- put an end to those talks.
"We kicked it around, but we tabled it," Amaro said. "It just wasn't the right time to focus on that."
Now, unless that extension talk resurfaces, Halladay will almost certainly become a free agent next winter. He'd need to bounce back from shoulder surgery and grind through 258 2/3 innings next year to vest his $20 million option for 2014. And only once in his 15 big league seasons has he worked that many innings: In 2003. At age 26.
• Agents who have spoken with the Phillies say that despite their pursuit of both a center fielder and right fielder this winter, one option who apparently is no longer on their list is Josh Hamilton. Amaro wouldn't comment on any specific free agent, but said people who think the Phillies don't have the wiggle room to make a big signing are mistaken.
"I don't know that yet," he said. "We haven't been given a real budget. I know it's not unlimited, but that's not usually how we work. There are limitations, but each situation is unique, in and of itself. We didn't budget for Cliff Lee. But we signed Cliff Lee. We haven't budgeted for a bunch of things we've done. Each situation is different."
• Teams that have touched base with the Rays say they continue to listen to all sorts of trade scenarios that could involve James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson or even David Price. But the odds of Shields or Price actually going anywhere might be almost as long as the odds of the Rays signing Zack Greinke.
"Oh, they're open to it," said an official of one team that checked in with the Rays. "They're open to being overwhelmed."
The asking price for Shields, other teams say, starts in the neighborhood of the five-player package the Rays got from the Cubs for Matt Garza, and goes north from there. And to pry the Cy Young Award winner away, it might take double that. So Hellickson remains a much more likely candidate to call a moving van. And even that's no lock.
• Those same clubs also don't believe that the other reigning Cy Young, R.A. Dickey, is really on the market -- yet. The Mets have listened on him since the GM meetings. But teams that kicked those tires came away with the impression the Mets still prefer to sign him, and are just lining up trade options in case those talks fall apart.
• Rumors are swirling that Zack Greinke is looking for a six-year deal, at Cole Hamels/Matt Cain dollars. But beware of those rumblings, because Greinke's agent, Casey Close, hasn't asked interested teams to make specific offers yet. Nevertheless, it would be an upset if Greinke doesn't haul in the biggest contract of the winter.
"Of all the free agents out there," said an official of one club, "the only guy I think will get his money is Greinke."
• A Jeremy Guthrie stat to ponder: From Aug. 1 on, only three American League starters had a better ERA than he did.
That's the good news. Now here's the scary news for the Royals: Guthrie (48-72) is one of only four pitchers who are 20 games under .500 during the past five seasons (2008-12) -- and the Royals now employ THREE of them:
Anybody else suspect the Royals felt better about that first list than the second? Thought so.